Don’t Work at What You’re Bad at, Hire It (or Money and Business)
An Interview with J. Christopher Burch
J. Christopher Burch takes uson his journey to the top.From selling newspapers in prep school to running the college’s hot dog concessions and pinball machines, Burch has been building his billion dollar empire since childhood. Discover his unique perspective on money and business, on being an entrepreneur before entrepreneurship existed, and on being a mentor now for entrepreneurs today. Burch shares his opinion on individual limitations, business relationships, and “that Facebook movie."
Kyle Widrick: Today we sit down for an exclusive one-on-one inside look into the mind of Chris Burch. Chris Burch is a co-founder of popular fashion brand Tory Burch. He's also a creative mind and investor behind brands such as Eagle's Eye, Ed by Ellen DeGeneres, and Nihi Sumba Island. Nihi has been awarded the number one luxury hotel in the world by Travel & Leisure for the second year running. I'm Kyle Widrick, this is The Creator Series.
Chris Burch, thank you for being here once again. People loved our last segment on The Creator Series about your life. This time today we're going to actually talk about specifically money and business and how you think about those subjects.
If someone were to ask you today about your career-
Chris Burch: Well, I started my first company out college, selling door-to-door on college campuses and I had this brainy idea that I was going to sell sweaters door-to-door on college campuses to preppie girls and I was going to expand the network all through the country.
Kyle Widrick: Is that the first thing you started to sell, or did you sell-
Chris Burch: Well, obviously, when I was in college my friend Bruce and I we ran all the Hot Talk concessions at Ithaca College. We had pinball machines at Cornell University. We had about 50 different things. Really my first real entrepreneurial thing was in prep school, I was getting the New York Times at a wholesale level and selling it. So I had like seven or eight businesses in college. I spent very little time learning and a lot of time doing.
Kyle Widrick: Did you just like making money, having money in your pocket-
Chris Burch: So, I grew up reading Richie Rich because he's kind of like my hero. Some people have a hero in Steve Jobs. But my comic book figure Richie Rich was great because look, he had a gold pool, he had a ton of money, he could do whatever he wanted. I'd read my Richie Rich comics as a kid, I'd go, I'm going to be Richie Rich someday.
Kyle Widrick: Hmm, got it. Did you admire folks back then? Did you have people outside of the Richie Rich idea, were there specific mentors that you learned from that taught you things in business?
Chris Burch: You know, my Dad was my mentor. I really admired my Father. He was an independent business guy, he was awesome. He was a great athlete at University of Virginia. He could do it all. And I always respected him. Instead of having a regular summer job, we'd go to the plant that made blacktop and take our car and fill it with blacktop and then go around to neighbors and do their driveway over for them. So, we were always trying to find ways to make money without that nine-to-five job.
So, the base was built, one, was to work hard and, two, was to do things that made you more money than the $4 and hour, $3 an hour back then. When I got to college and I was a terrible, terrible student. I don't want to even tell you how bad my grades were. So I go to this New England prep school, my parents never even let me come home for Thanksgiving because I'm not sure they wanted me home. So I'd be there all alone, I'd reflect and I'd try to find ways to make a lot of money.
So, in prep school I sold the newspapers and I always was thinking about how I could do the next thing. Finally, when I got to college at Ithaca I really started to just go for it. You guys got to understand, back then no one was into making money. It was Vietnam War, it was right at the end of it, it was kind of marching. No one really ... There was not entrepreneurship, there were no entrepreneurship programs. Everyone was like, oh, you've got to go work for Proctor & Gamble, you've got to go work for a law firm, you've got to go do this.
It's kind of opposite today, where all young entrepreneurs, all they want to do is go work for somebody.
Kyle Widrick: True. Interesting. So, you were focused on making money from an early age. You've made a lot of money. Does money mean anything to you today? What do you-
Chris Burch: Let's just make something really clear. Money meant a lot to me growing up, what it could buy. It wasn't that I would buy it, it's what it could buy. So I'll never forget, I was a tennis player and a great athlete, not a great athlete, I was a good athlete in college and so I'd think about ... I remember that first time I made like $4,000. I was like, I could buy a tennis court with that. So it was the idea of visualizing what you could do, but not doing.
Kyle Widrick: Sure.
Chris Burch: Right now in my life I'm really driven by curiosity. I never look back. I could care less about what I did. I care about what I'm going to do. What I care about is my sphere of impacting younger people, working with great entrepreneurs, helping them build an amazing career, and trying to make them not to make the stupid God damned mistakes that they all do today, because they're layered thin.
Kyle Widrick: That's a good transition. You mentor a lot of people, you've been a great mentor to me. How do you get young entrepreneurs to be realistic and self-aware about what they're capable of? Because not everyone's going to be a Chris Burch and create $100 million businesses. How do you try to get them on the right track for who they are?
Chris Burch: First of all, entrepreneurs got to be curious, okay? And you can't live in your own world. You can't live on that layer. And I've seen the difference between the speed in which we're moving now and I always thought the downfall of entrepreneurship was when the Facebook movie came out. I walked out of that movie and I said, "We're in for a real freaking hurricane of losers. It's going to be every person in the world with some kind of idea is they're going to think they can start a business." I said to my friends, I said, "Look, we should just make guards for the fingers because they're going to be typing away so much."
When media pushes an agenda, you have a problem. So, all of a sudden now we live in a day where 70% of college kids think they can start their own business. What people need to do is be realistic. Yes, a large part of people can start their own agenda, but they've got to know what they do well and what they don't. It's a rare, rare, rare find, like finding a green tortoise that lives in the desert that's there's only one of in the world, where people can do all things.
So, as an entrepreneur, you've got to think about the fact that you are a very limited human. So, it's that idea where you've got to go ten deep, you've got to go deep on the creativity, you've got to go deep on the knowledge, and you've got to talk to people that are older, not younger. What happens to Millennials today is they yickety-yack. They all go to the Soho house, they go to these places and they talk about, "Oh we're going to sell it for a multiple of this." "Did you hear this?" "We're the next Uber.", or the next things. There is no next Uber. The real next Uber is how do we as a group of people think way out of the box.
Start a business that's not a business. Think of things. Why, why are there so many people that are going into fashion and going into things? Because Millennials and people have a tendency to think through their own perspective. They don't think of the perspective from the supply chain or the perspective of other things.
Kyle Widrick: Makes sense. You talk about limitations. Do you have limitations? What areas are you not great?
Chris Burch: I'd rather talk about how few positive things I have. I'm the most limited human in the world. I have very few skills. I have a memory that, I don't know, whatever the least animal in the world has, my memory is worse. I don't remember anything, nothing, zero, zilch. I meet 10,000 people a year, if I remember 1 I'm lucky. So I realize I'm limited by memory, I'm limited by the fact that I'm highly impulsive. I am limited by the fact that shit comes out of my mouth that I can't even believe and it escapes, it's driving down the street, and I have to get my assistant to go drive it and bring it back and it ain't working.
I think, and what everyone should think, it's not what we're good at, it's what we're bad at. And by the way, you don't work at things you're bad at. Another big mistake. You hire and find people that are great at things you don't do.
Kyle Widrick: Got it.
Chris Burch: Is Chris Burch ever going to win a memory contest? Maybe against a second grader, but I doubt I'd win that.
Kyle Widrick: Got it. So it's hiring for key areas that you're not good at around you. In the world of skills and talents, how much of that is born versus taught? Obviously, you were born on some level an entrepreneur-
Chris Burch: Look, I've tried-
Kyle Widrick: Tenacity that-
Chris Burch: I try to say, I think 80% of who we are and what we are are born genetically. I truly believe that if you put Chris Burch on a farm in Iowa, Chris Burch would have ended up doing a creative business. If you put people ... The drive of genetics and that's history and history and history of things, is very driven. The environment either supports that drive or de-supports that drive. I like to think of that 80% of who we are is where we're born. By the age 11 as a parent there's very little we can change.
I like to think of every human has amazing skills and qualities, but we're living in a world where friends and everything are influencing their decisions about where they need to go and people today have to really look like who they are.
Kyle Widrick: When you look back at some of the bigger successes you've had, Eagle's Eye and Tory Burch, big businesses, was it timing, was it people, was it the idea itself?
Chris Burch: No, it's really simple right?
Kyle Widrick: Is there any luck involved?
Chris Burch: Tremendous luck because I grew up in an environment with really good taste, where I understood fashion and design and what quality was and what quality wasn't. Tremendous tenacity, not giving up, very important. And not letting anyone in the fucking world tell you you can't do it, and never giving up. I think it's ... They talk about Tory or Eagle's Eye, but now I have a great business now with Ellen DeGeneres, it's huge. I'm really lucky that I'm a pretty good investor because I go to the childhood of the person, I ask all about how they grew up and whatever they do. I just want to know who they are, what's that tenacity? If they're amazing engineers, what kind of humans are they? Are they going to treat my capital like it's their own capital?
I think the combination is, I actually think I'm a better investor than a starter. So I created Poppin, which is office supplies, but I think the guy running Poppin today, Randy, is really, really excellent. Eagle's Eye my brother and I ran day and day.
Kyle Widrick: [crosstalk 00:11:42] for a second. You started two businesses with family.
Chris Burch: Right.
Kyle Widrick: A lot of people say you shouldn't start a business with family or it's difficult. Looking back it was the right choice, the only choice-
Chris Burch: It's kind of like that analogy is for me the business I started with family turned out to be extraordinarily successful businesses, but it causes a lot of pain and consternation. I would suggest not starting a business with a family member. I think the best business can be with friends. I think you should never have a business with three partners because you're doomed, and you've got to make sure that you respect them at every level and that there's some way that you can get out of the relationship if it doesn't work.
Kyle Widrick: So, you're saying two max as partners, no more than two.
Chris Burch: No more.
Kyle Widrick: Okay.
Chris Burch: Why would you want to have three partners, then two people gang up on one?
Kyle Widrick: Yeah, interesting.